If I have calculated correctly, Christmas is 8 days away. (I was an English major; you do the math!) So maybe, like me, you are watching old movies and pulling out favorite Christmas stories for an annual read-through. Last year, we discovered a story new to our family, a beautiful little old-fashioned tale called “The Family Under The Bridge” by Natalie Savage Carlson. It is the story of a recently homeless family in Paris and the ragged old hobo who pledges to find for them a new home. It’s great.
Armand is the old beggar who reluctantly finds himself helping the three shell-shocked children, the little “starlings,” he calls them. And despite their mother’s disdain and revulsion for the old man, the family is soon inextricably linked with him (isn’t it always the case when we let the walls down — gah! Inconvenient love!) Armand promises Suzy a real, honest-to-goodness house for Christmas, a promise he can’t possibly keep, of course. Christmas Eve rolls around…
“Then the crowd of hoboes and their ladies and friends sang Christmas carols to the accordion music. Most of their voices were cracked and off key, but they sounded beautiful to themselves.
“Armand was ready to go by midnight. He clung to the big carton that had been given him at the tent as a gift. He knew it was full of jam, fruit and cigarettes. It would be his Christmas present to the gypsies.
“But Madame Calcet wouldn’t think of going straight back. ‘We must go to the midnight mass on the quay,’ she said. ‘The girl told me about it.’
“An altar had been set up on the Tournelle quay right out in the open. The priest in his bright vestments, followed by his altar boys, had just approached the altar by the time Armand and the Calcets arrived. Many of the hoboes stayed for the mass.
“Evelyne fell asleep in her mother’s arms. Jojo was quiet and respectful although it was the first time he had ever been to church.
“Armand swayed from one foot to the other uneasily. It had been so long since he had gone to mass. Lucky this one was out here on the quay. They never would have pulled him into one of those great fancy churches.
“The hobo had other things to make him uneasy. The plight of this family. Just how had he got himself so tied up with them? How had he blundered into such a trap? It was the way those starlings had begged hi to stay with them. That is how they had stolen his heart. No one had ever made him feel needed before. And now he’d lied to them. There wasn’t any house growing out of the ground — not for them.
“In his misery he raised his eyes high over the altar — up to the stars in the Paris sky. ‘Please, God,’ he said, moving his lips soundlessly, ‘I’ve forgotten how to pray. All I know now is how to beg. So I’m begging you to find a roof for this homeless family.’
“Then he was ashamed to notice that he was holding his beret up in his usual begging way. He quickly pulled it over his head.”
What do you pray for, so earnestly that you would beg, hat in hand under the starry December sky? Aren’t we all beggars, no better off than poor old Armand? It’s only when we forget what ragamuffins we are that our prayers get stale and ugly. May we all remember the state of our beggar souls, cry out in earnest to the only one who can do the impossible. Then watch and see if the miracles don’t begin to unfold.
In the meantime, sip that eggnog latte and remember, there are those in our midst who will spend Christmas on the concrete. A little compassion goes a long way.